Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Big question, but here's an effort at short speculation, since an 'answer' would be complicated indeed. But this really comes to me after watching an interview with Richard Dawkins whose new book provocatively titled The God Delusion I am dying to read. In the interview, Dawkins does a rehash of many of the points he has often made about why religion is bad, but that does not make them lose their glitter.

Dawkins's opposition is really not just to religion as such, but to blind faith. Such faith and dogma were also part of totalitarian leaders' regimes, and it should be emphasized as he does, that their brutality did not necessarily have anything to do with their being atheists. Of course, in the past, religious fundamentalism and dogma has led to untold brutality; however, it would be a controversial statement to say that religion necessarily and always leads to evil and cruelty. At the same time, the current breed of religiously motivated Jihadis reinforces the evil which religion can engender. One may argue that these terrorists have twisted the principles of religion for their own means, but the fact remains that the ultimate source of their motivation is blind religious faith of some kind.

But history and such episodes raises an important question which is the title of the post. After all, it does seem true that millions of people ascribe their 'good' behaviour to their religious faith. But there are two important points here; first of all, the principles that they subscribe to which make them good do not do so because they are religious principles. Many of the principles in the Bible or the Quran or the Gita can be judged to be quite reasonable for a peaceful existence, quite irrespective of whether Jesus or Mohammad uttered them. The principle which I find the most tenable from this perspective is 'Do unto others as you have have them do unto you', a very commonsense adage whose versions can be found in every religious text. The second point is that just because some principles from religious texts make sense, does not mean that all of them do. So when someone says that they are good because they follow Jesus's teachings, don't they mean that they are good because they follow the moral principles of a man who was unusually virtuous, and call them religious principles? The 'Do unto others...' principles is such a commonsense principle to follow (unless you are a sadist) that it does not need to be tied to faith in order to be believed. The reason is clear; if you don't follow it, there will be evidence to show that you suffer. After all, what is called moral philosophy also teaches very similar principles as are enunciated in religious texts. Most of these principles can be followed for logical reasons.

So the tenet that millions look to religion in order to be good is in my (and Dawkins's) opinion something of a facade. The good behaviour has to do with the principles themselves. The real reason why it appears to do with the source is that most of us who believe those principles have been brought up in a culture, at home and outside, where consciously or unconsciously, we have been taught to believe in them because Jesus or Mohammad or Krishna said so. The reason for this in turn is our common human weaknesses; we find it hard to imbibe new principles until they appear as dogmas, as sacred lines which must not be transgressed. This may work for indoctrination of those principles in our mind, but the unfortunate and devastating side effect of that is that we start regarding them as dogma, in spite of the fact that some of them must be logical! So why not teach them to us as logical principles from the start, thereby freed from their religious connections?

One of the more provocative points that Dawkins has repeatedly made, is about the religious indoctrination of children, which he regards almost as some kind of child abuse. He thinks it is despicable to call a five year old child a Catholic child or a Muslim child, in as much as it is wrong to call a child a 'Keynsian' child, because the child has not yet developed abilities to analyse his moniker. This issue is more controversial and leads to bringing up children. The big question that all parents ask is; how do I inculcate moral values in my child? The answer almost always has to do with the religion of the parents. The bigger question is; can we inculcate moral values in children without alluding to religious reasons? I believe that we can, but it would not be easy. The problem, as we are all aware, is that children rarely bend to the dictates of logic. Sometimes, they have to be forcefully told to do something. What better source of force than religion? Tell your child that if he does not behave, God will punish him, or that he will consign him to the cauldrons of hell. Maybe it's not always that extreme, but as a child growing up in a marginally religious household, I can ascertain that the whole issue of God doing something if I did not do certain things came up not infrequently, as it does in many households. Maybe it does in a trivial non-indoctrination kind of manner, but it does, and then it is not surprising that the whole concept of God doing something if we don't do something becomes unconsciously ingrained in our minds. In my case fortunately, my parents always stressed reason above religion, so my test case is not really the ideal one to demonstrate this point. But there will be several others.

Is this good? Or more importantly, how can we inculcate moral values in our children without alluding to religion? For one thing, I definitely think that parents can talk about the consequences of the behaviour of the child without involving God or hell or Satan. The 'Do unto others...' adage makes the consequences of not obeying it quite clear in a self evident way. Many of the negative consequences of some of the other sins elucidated in religion, such as stealing, killing, or adultery are quite clear even without a religious basis. I understand that it may be much more difficult to bring up a child this way; it would need much more patience to make him understand his actions. But here as in other parts of our lives, we use religion because it provides a quick and convenient answer, an imaginary force that can reward or punish. At first glance, there seems nothing wrong in threatening a child once in a while with godly consequences if he does not behave. However, the unfortunate result of such an upbringing is that the child may learn to take many more things based only on faith as they are. So if parents really want to inculcate moral values based on religion in their children, they will, at the same time, have to do the unlikely balancing act of teaching the child to think for himself. But how can two such diametrically opposed modes of indoctrination, one based on faith and the other based on thinking, work? It is a complicated situation, but my point is really not to say that a moral upbringing not based on religion will work splendidly or that it will be better, but only that one based on religion may cause much more damage by allowing the child to conveniently indulge in faith. And as noted before, most of the moral principles which people follow can be taught as being independent of religion, at least to adults. So perhaps the best possible way, although not perfect, would be to use the God device sometimes, and then, as the child grows up, teach him to think for himself, and encourage him if he challenges the existence of god. As I said, I don't know whether such an appraoch will work, but I am willing to place my bets on an upbringing not based on religion. If anything, it could not be worse than one based on religion, and probably better. And in any case, who thought parenting was easy?

In the end, religion in sundry and big ways is so widely entrenched in our modern way of life, that unconsciously, morality seems to be intricately tied up with it. But many of the parables in the Bible and other texts can be followed ironically independent of their source. I have no doubt that Jesus, if he existed, was a great and wise man, but that does not need him to be the son of god.

The real problem is that most of us feel an emotional burden in discarding religion, because it is connected to our childhood, the times that we spent together with relatives, and with our happy festivals. When I say today that I don't believe in god, I don't feel entirely comfortable, not because somewhere I believe in him/her, but because the whole concept of god has been connected in some way or other with my secure childhood, the home which I grew in, and the family and friends who made my life pleasant and secure. Not the religious but the emotional attachment that I have with all these things makes it harder for me to say that I don't believe in god. I fear that I will offend those close to me by saying it, and I fear that the thread that connects me to my childhood will be broken if I say it. But that only shows how religion and god have dissolved the boundaries between themselves and emotion and culture. If I say that my emotional connection is not to god, but to the family atmosphere that prevailed in the festival that was celebrated to worship him, then isn't god nothing more than a pedagogical device, simply providing the means to the end? If that's the case, then the ties that bind me to my family, childhood, and friends, are really the ends, much more concrete and stronger than the god who was the guiding thread. And if that is so, then I should not fear that I will lose my connection to all the things above, by saying that I am an atheist (or more scientifically, an agnostic). It is somewhat of a bitter pill to swallow, but I have nothing to lose if I do it. And I believe, so don't most of my friends.


Anonymous Chetan said...


Had read the post earlier and empathised with most of the points you mentioned about religious ceremonies at home and the fear of loss of attachment that stemmed from them etc. And then today came across this piece of news and thought you should read it as well.

8:04 AM  
Anonymous Chetan said...

*that stemmed from abandoning them

Sorry about that.

8:05 AM  
Blogger Hirak said...

Chetan: Thanks for the interesting link!

I am still trying to finish Dennett's book - 'Breaking the Spell' which attempts to explain religion and why it exists from an evolutionary perspective. It treats treats religion like an organism that has been remarkable in its survival throughout human history. While Dennett's argument for religion seems more psychological, the NYT article linked above proposes an even more fundamental reason why we have have religion. Perhaps then, religion has survived because it taps into that process more fundamentally than anything else.

10:45 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Chetan, thanks for the link. I had read the review of the book in NATURE. I am quite piqued, but also skeptical of theories expounding the innate nature of morality. I don't doubt that pair bonding and sharing and altruism that are well known evolutionary devices could be incorporated into justification for morality. But I would be very interested in seeing how the author actually makes constructs that could actually 'give rise' to morality. The comparison with Chomsky's theory of language is tempting, but it must be remembered that first of all, language can be much more easily dissected into syntax (which is really what Chomsky gives superior priority to) on a decidedly mathematical basis, and also that the 'bare' elements of language (verb phrases, noun phrases etc.) can be much more easily and concretely identified. In case of morality, I don't doubt that there are common elements, but it seems very hard to integrate those elements into a formal system of logic. I look forward to the book!

12:21 PM  

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